Medical pot shops plan gains more GOP support

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A plan to keep medical marijuana dispensaries open is gaining traction in the Michigan Senate as it garnered more Republican support after a Tuesday committee hearing.

Sen. Mike Shirkey, chairman of the Senate Health Policy Committee, said after the panel’s first hearing on the legislation that he backs the plan. The Clarklake Republican said the panel hearings on the legislation are “not gonna drag out.”

Shirkey said he thinks the measure will get approved by the full Senate as the House considers its own version of the plan.

The legislation’s goal is to ensure patients will have no trouble buying medical marijuana while dispensaries await a licensing decision from the state, supporters say.

The state department responsible for regulating medical marijuana has encouraged dispensaries to voluntarily close on Dec. 15 after permit applications are due. They would stay shut until applications are approved.

The Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs has said dispensaries that stay open could hurt their chances of getting a license, calling them “a potential impediment to licensure.” But the department’s medical pot director, Andrew Brisbo, has said LARA will not ask State Police to crack down on dispensaries that disobey.

Some pot shops have already closed in hopes that they will win favor in their license application.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, and Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge.

“The genie’s out of the bottle,” Jones said. “They’re out there right now ... but the problem is: What do we do between Dec. 15, perhaps as many as nine moths later, if you don’t have any dispensaries out there and you have someone suffering?”

He said “if you just shut them all down, it’s gonna go underground.”

Supporters like Jones, Knezek and Shirkey say the plan fixes an oversight in access to medical marijuana the Legislature didn’t mean to create as it transitions from an illegal but mostly unenforced medical marijuana industry to a more regulated one.

Steve Linder, representing a marijuana group called the Michigan Responsibility Council, described the legislation as “jaw dropping” and said it amounts to a “carve-out for those who are knowingly breaking the law.”

Jones fired back, “Mr. Linder, would you mind telling us what millionaire you work for, who you’re lobbying for and who it is that wants a monopoly in this business because we all can see through what’s being said?”

Linder responded: “That’s kind of like asking me, having my wife say, ‘Do I look fat in this dress?’ I don’t think I’m going to dignify that with an answer, senator, thank you.”

Hundreds of dispensaries across the state have distributed medical marijuana without police reprisal despite a 2013 Michigan Supreme Court ruling that determined they are operating illegally.

“We’re not sure what compelling interest this serves,” Linder said. “Patients were never supposed to buy these products from dispensaries. They are illegal. And we believe that these bills should be defeated.”

Linder said current patients could go to licensed medical marijuana caregivers instead of dispensaries if dispensaries voluntarily close.

But patients and others have complained that it’s difficult to find caregivers because there’s no database for them. Dispensaries also make marijuana far easier to find.

“This is a matter of life and death,” said Carla Boyd, who sits on the Michigan Epilepsy Foundation’s board of directors.